Wheeler and the BBC

Facts and personalities

Is this really required? Is this really required?
The death of Charles Wheeler was announced on the 4th of July 2008. He was a BBC man through and through, but then so was Alistair Cooke. When Cooke died the whole world, so it seemed, took it in turns to step forward and say how good he was. And he was, but good at what? Few people could remember his writing for the Guardian, too far back in time but most would recall the radio broadcasts and not so much the content as the man himself. The genial warm lyrical speech style as if floating above the subject but without seeming to be detached from it. The whole world stepped forward? Well not Charles Wheeler, he suggested that Cooke was detached, implying that he was never in the thick of it - such as a race riot in the USA- so was a lightweight. The gulf between Cooke and Wheeler was huge, the reason? This quote from the Times gives us some idea of why this was so -

Wheeler himself would probably have considered his major series (on BBC TV) as his five-part Charles Wheeler’s America (1996) but this, in fact, was disappointing, largely because of his modest refusal to give pride of place to his own personality. (Not for nothing was he one of the harshest critics of Alistair Cooke and his 1972 mega series on America.)

Altogether a bit of a pity as Wheeler was also a good reporter, just different. Also he clearly misunderstood the role of the face in front of the camera; for Wheeler loathed the cult of what the Americans call anchorman. Again the Times sums it up -

For all his facility in doing a 40 second piece to camera in the course of a news report from some far-flung danger spot, Wheeler never felt or looked at home sedately addressing a camera in a studio. And that went, too, for his experience a few years later with Newsnight, where originally he was meant to be, along with Peter Snow, one of the programme’s anchormen holding the show together.

Very true, in fact Wheeler seemed at times to be talking to a twelve year old and with a mix of lofty disdain and boredom too.

However, in the BBC, as in all similar reporting, the cult of the personality is deemed vital. Remember Brian Redhead? The ultimate triumph of style over substance and the Dimblebys seem to go on forever, worse luck.
A bit of a mugs game A bit of a mugs game
Another huge gulf between Cooke and Wheeler was how each spent the war. Cooke remained in the US as a civilian while Wheeler joined the Marines and saw action first hand, also his elder brother was killed in 1940. However, and to his credit, Wheeler did not trade on his military past and he was spot on about the dreadful ever ongoing parade of peacocks and hens that the BBC is. Perhaps he was not so much haughty as disappointed with his employer's choice of workmates. He would have had my sympathy there.